Lyn Gardner

29th January 2019

Lyn Gardner writes about theatre for The Stage and The Independent and is recipient of the 2017 UK Theatre Award for outstanding contribution to British Theatre.

“Audience member faints,” was the headline in several papers last week in response to the fact that an elderly theatre-goer had passed out during the first preview of Martin Crimp’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other which stars Cate Blanchett at the National Theatre.

There is nothing like a bit of sex or violence on stage to whip up a media storm around theatre. Add to that a movie star (who is also a terrific stage actor) and a Games of Thrones actor—Stephen Dillane—in the cast, and suddenly theatre is tabloid worthy. If only it was all the time and not only when it is perceived as being shocking.

Violence has been part of theatre since the time of the Ancient Greeks. It is said that even the thought of the Furies could make grown men faint. The violence of Oedipus’ blinding may happen off stage and be described rather than seen but that doesn’t make the moment when we first glimpse the sightless Oedipus any less appalling. In fact, it only ratchets up the tension.  We are horrified twice over.

The Greeks knew the power of suggestion and making us use our imaginations rather than showing. But I am disinclined to believe that contemporary theatre is more violent than the theatre of the ancients. Even four hundred years ago Shakespeare wrote scenes in which eyes were gouged out (King Lear), tongues cut out (Titus Andronicus, which also features a little light cannibalism) and in Marlowe’s Edward 11 unspeakable things are done with a poker.

If violence in the theatre is more disturbing than violence in the cinema or on TV, then that is because it is not mediated by the screen which creates a distance. Violence in the theatre is much more akin to being the first to come across a pile-up on the motorway. You don’t want to look but you can’t help yourself.

Writers, directors and designers are well aware of the visceral effect of stage violence—and it is simulated not real unlike the images from Syria and other parts of the world that we see every day on our smart phones—and, for the most part, they use it responsibly. I don’t think any playwright just casually tosses violence into a play on a whim or for sensationalism or because it will boost ticket sales. On the contrary I know plenty who think twice about buying a ticket for a show featuring lots of violence because they know from experience that their own capacity for watching it on stage is limited.

A theatre that eschews violence would be a theatre which is hardly reflecting the world in which we live and surely one of the purposes of theatre is to hold up a mirror to society and provide a space in which we can play out different narratives and imagine different versions of the world in relative safety. After all we know it is not actually real even if its feels real.

Nonetheless it often seems as if violence on stage is often the site of moral panic as if some fail to recognize that depicting violence is not the same as condoning violence. When back in 1982 Mary Whitehouse launched a private prosecution against The Romans in Britain for gross indecency she failed to understand that the scene in which a Roman invader anally rapes a Druid is indecent not because it involved simulated sex but because the humiliation of one man by another represents an act of power and colonisation.

The scene is not there because either writer or director enjoy its presence or expect the audience to be sexually titillated but because they dislike it and are demonstrating how violence is part of war and one of the tools of an invading army.  As Edward Bond, whose scene in Saved in which a baby in a pram is stoned became a cause celebre in the 1960s, has said, he never sets out to shock and appal audiences: “It wouldn’t occur to me for one moment as I write that a scene is shocking. I’m just pursuing the logic of the situation—only ever that. I think drama has to pursue things to the extremes so that we can understand what we are doing in our society.”

The ancient Greeks understood that one of the functions of theatre is to understand ourselves and the impulses that lie beneath society’s civilised surface. If that means the odd person being shocked and passing out, I reckon it’s a very small price to pay.

Back to Journal